December 22, 2023 | The Jerusalem Post

Israel-Hamas War: The Israeli drones keeping the IDF safe in Gaza

Israel uses a plethora of drones, from the larger Herons made by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) to the Elbit Hermes 450, known as the Zik.
December 22, 2023 | The Jerusalem Post

Israel-Hamas War: The Israeli drones keeping the IDF safe in Gaza

Israel uses a plethora of drones, from the larger Herons made by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) to the Elbit Hermes 450, known as the Zik.

An IDF soldier holds in the air what looks like a large model airplane attached to a giant string. He pulls it back, bending backward so the model airplane is tilted slightly upward toward the sky. Then he releases the plane and it flies off, its propeller making only a slight noise.

The model airplane is actually an unmanned aerial system, a drone.

We are standing in a field near Gaza. The sound of artillery and other weapons can be heard in the distance. The war in Gaza is in its third month. Several soldiers are walking around. There are other drones to be launched. These types of drones are called Skylarks in English and they are made by Elbit Systems.

These small unmanned aircraft can be easily stowed in a car, several at a time. They can be built anywhere. They have two cameras – one for daytime electro-optics and another infrared one for nighttime. The soldiers describe the Skylark as a relatively simple machine but with a lot of complex systems behind it. This represents one level in the use of unmanned systems, such as various types of drones, being used over Gaza.

The IDF calls the unit that flies these drones Sky Rider. “Sky Rider teams join infantry forces, including special forces and reconnaissance battalions, and assist them in maneuvering safely by acting as their ‘eyes in the sky.’ The teams are trained to fly UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] that give the forces an aerial overview of their surroundings. Both male and female soldiers serve in the unit and complete identical training,” the IDF said about the unit in October.

Sky Rider

I drove down to see the Sky Rider Unit in action on December 11. It was a hot, clear day – one of the few nice days, perhaps before winter sets in and the rains return. The roads to border communities around Gaza are beginning to open up. There are still some police and security at the gates of communities within a dozen kilometers of the border, but things have changed since the first month and a half of the war when the roads anywhere near Gaza were replete with security and police and few civilian cars.

We entered the area through Netivot and Route 25, which heads from Beersheba toward Saad, Alumim, and other Gaza border communities. We drove past Shuva, a Jewish community, and came to a roundabout. We turned left and headed for the area of essential operations. Sky Rider is here, helping to keep soldiers safe in Gaza by providing the “eyes” watching over the fighters.

In front are elements of the 36th Division and other key units fighting in Shujaiya. This is a tough battle: ten soldiers were killed in Shujaiya on December 13.

The chief sergeant of the Sky Rider Unit, Romi, had been studying in Italy before the war. She was back in Israel on October 7 in Ra’anana with family. “It was a scary morning to hear what was happening,” she recalls. “We knew we had to go back to the army and serve.”

This is the war she and her friends trained for during their military service. Romi had gone into the army at 18, like many Israelis. She wanted to be a pilot. However, she didn’t pass the extremely competitive exams for the course. She ended up being an operator of these drones that are used by the artillery.

“It’s different than everything else the artillery force does. It’s special and exciting. The whole purpose is to use all these small drones,” she says.

Israel uses a plethora of drones, from the larger Herons made by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) to the Elbit Hermes 450, known as the Zik. Israel uses larger drones to carry out airstrikes, which have become more common in the last year, including in the West Bank and now in Gaza.

ISRAEL ALSO uses new, smaller types of drones, called loitering munitions, that carry a warhead and fly into targets. These are called Maoz in Hebrew and are used in Gaza. The Skylark is something in between types like the swarming Thor drones or the various quadcopters and the larger drones that are more like aircraft. The Skylark is meant for battalion-level operations.

Skylarks are used to collect intelligence, soaring over the battlefield from where they can see in front of infantry or tanks. This can help the artillery, or what are called fire brigade units, to coordinate fire against targets. Israel has a fire brigade, the 282nd, that is linked to the 36th Division, but backs up other units in Gaza as well. The Sky Rider Unit is actually part of the 215th Artillery, which has M109 howitzers and has been supporting the 162nd Division operations in northern Gaza.

Romi was excited to have a combat role in the army. More women are serving in combat than ever before, and this war has seen unprecedented participation levels by women combat soldiers, as well as new recruits to combat units. For instance, the first women have been chosen to go through training for the elite Unit 669 tactical rescue unit.

Romi describes the challenging work of studying to use the Skylark drones. “You have to learn about dynamics of the air and also to learn to be a combat fighter because your whole purpose is to also protect yourself and go into dangerous places,” she says.

When the war began, she initially went to the North to join her unit on October 10. For three weeks, Israel pounded Gaza using the air force before infantry and tanks could begin the ground offensive in late October. There were several raids, and combat engineers also reinforced the defenses along the border. The Sky Rider Unit helped gather intelligence and prepare missions. “We were working with the battalions and understand the plan of fighting.”

After the ground maneuver began, things became more intense. They could hear the shelling and battle as they came closer. “The feeling we all had was that we are ready and here to fight and protect our country and felt we had to get through this goal. We were working 24/7. There’s a lot of danger to a soldier’s life. It was a real war. It was a gift to be their eyes and try to help as many soldiers as we could and also Palestinian lives.

“We work with intel and can say who is innocent and who is not, so innocent people will not be killed for no reason. That’s the moral of the IDF,” Romi says.

Saving lives

One example of how the Sky Rider Unit helps save lives and protect forces in Gaza came early on in the fighting inside Gaza.

A unit of Golani, an infantry brigade that uses Namer armored personnel carriers, was inside Gaza fighting terrorists. “We were up in the air and collecting intelligence and keeping them [the soldiers] safe and watching them, and then all of a sudden we saw them being targeted by anti-tank missiles,” recounts Romi. There was also small arms fire used by terrorists targeting the troops. The enemy was trying to overwhelm and ambush the armored vehicles with soldiers in them.

“As their only eyes, we could help them and tell them where they [the terrorists] are coming from and where to shoot,” she explains. This is important because soldiers inside an APC [armored personnel carrier] can’t easily get out of the vehicle under fire. The Sky Riders helped direct artillery to strike precisely and close to the Golani troops and their vehicles.

“This was a mission that my team really felt [embodied] our whole purpose…We prevented a battalion from being killed.”

Drones have now become integral to combat operations, not just here in Israel but also abroad in places like Ukraine. Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Houthis, all backed by Iran, also use drones. Romi says she can’t imagine what it would have been like 20 years ago without this technology. “It would feel like fighting blind.”

Providing more access to drones and this kind of real-time intel for battalions is important as well. When drones first appeared on the battlefield in the 1980s and 1990s, they were used by the air force or intelligence units in some countries, and their information, or live feed, might be available to only a few people. Now, drones proliferate like a menagerie of animals at all levels of the army.

Today, battalion commanders can speak to units like Sky Rider and have their members work shoulder to shoulder with the infantry so they can coordinate. And more units want Skylarks overhead, explains Romi.

“As a unit, we get a lot of new technology, and in the IDF in general there is a lot of research and development,” she says. The IDF also keeps expanding drone usage, such as introducing the new Spark drone for the 144th Squadron.

Women in key roles

The Sky Rider Unit is growing. It has been around for several years; for instance, Romi played a role in Operation Northern Shield in 2018, the operation against Hezbollah tunnels. The unit is growing and training numerous new members.

Romi is also enthusiastic about the increased number of women joining combat units. “I think women can serve in every unit in the army, and a girl who can pass those standards in any unit can be a great soldier. I am so glad I got to go to this training and become a combat soldier; I think it’s the best fit for me,” she says.

She praises the two women who were accepted into training for Unit 669. “If I was able to go to a special unit like that, I would have sought to go to them. A lot of women would do better than the guys,” says Romi.

Women are now also in tanks and moving into more and more units. Women play a key role in various coed border patrol units as well, such as the Caracal. Romi addresses the issues faced by coed soldiers, such as placing men and women together in a small space in a tank. “It’s good to have their separation. Even in our unit, it’s divided into women and men teams. The work is the same; there isn’t any difference in sending women or men to this special mission. In Gaza, we had girls and boys inside working with the battalion,” she says. “We go wherever the mission is. We travel wherever they need us.”

It sounds like a slogan: Have drone, will travel.

Seth Frantzman is the author of Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machine, Artificial Intelligence and the Battle for the Future (Bombardier 2021) and an adjunct fellow at The Foundation for Defense of Democracies.


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